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Story: The Whole Nine Yards

By Michael Schilf · January 12, 2011

Story. It’s the single most important element. And that’s saying a lot – there are a ton of important elements. The direction, the acting, the cinematography, the lighting, sound, and editing can all work beautifully, but if the story is bad, the movie is no good. If the story is good, however, everything can be a bit out of focus, and the movie will still be a success.

So when it comes to writing movies, story really is the whole nine yards, but a good screenplay can’t survive on story alone. Structure, Voice, Form, and Character are essential ingredients to the entire package. It’s just that when competing for the top prize in the hierarchy of screenplay significance, story clearly has an edge.

Structure: Acts, sequences, and plot points are all super important, but also completely quantifiable – literally the x’s and o’s of screenwriting. A flaw in structure can be fixed. An act can end earlier or start later, a plot point can be moved or redefined, and often an entire sequence can literally be lifted from the script and completely reconstructed.

Voice: In many ways, this is where the art of screenwriting is most apparent. There are no rules, no magic recipes, no concrete applications. And all truly good writing has a distinct voice, which is the way the writer describes the action, his or her word choice, and personal style. Voice, however, really is only a luxury for the reader. A script without an unique original voice can still survive as long as it has a solid story. 

Form: Screenwriting is filmmaking on paper, and the way that paper looks is important. Executing correct script format and applying that form to turn your script into a page-turner is key. But learning the tricks of the format trade – creating white space, describing the shot, and maximizing script economy – is more about polishing the final product, not building the story foundation.

Character: Creating amazing characters is essential to a good screenplay, but the development of a great character still comes in second place to story. Basically, a screenplay originates one of two ways: (1) starting with a great character and finding a story that compliments that character or (2) starting with a story idea (usually High Concept) and then plugging in characters that complement the story. In the first approach, a great character in a bad story still equates to a bad screenplay; however, a cookie-cutter character in a good story can still survive.

Story: As stated earlier, a great screenplay needs all five parts working well as a cohesive unit, but story really is the major power player. You can’t really fix a bad story. Structure, Form, and Character can all be remodeled, and Voice must be discovered, but story either works or it doesn’t. You can’t put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

So safeguard your screenplay by thinking about your story in a responsible way. Use a story questionnaire and ask the really difficult questions in the beginning because you don’t want to be asking them after you finish your draft, reluctantly coming to the conclusion that your script needs a complete story overhaul and a page-1 rewrite. As a screenwriter, it’s your job to tell really awesome stories, so do the hard work and develop an original and unforgettable story – something that absolutely sticks.